When refugees flee, they take time to flourish. At first, they just pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Yema Torkani, 18, is doing well with a hairdressing job in Moldova after he and his family came through a nightmare of war in their native Afghanistan.
The Torkani family are from Herat, an ancient and cultured city near the Afghan border with Iran. In 2015, their eldest son Yamen was kidnapped and murdered. Sixteen at the time, he would have been 22 today.
After the killing, the family fled first to the Russian Federation before going on to Moldova. Why Russia? Why Moldova?
“I’m not quite sure. I was only 12 when it happened,” says Yema. But his parents remembered the time when Soviet forces were in Afghanistan and perhaps the fact his father Wahid spoke Russian had something to do with it.
At first, the family lived in a refugee centre but now they have a flat in Chișinău, decorated with a few things they were able to bring from Afghanistan, although nothing as big as a carpet.
Young Yema went to gymnasium (high school) and graduated after the ninth class. After six years in Moldova, he speaks fluent Romanian and Russian, as well as his native Dari.
Teachers noticed Yema was mature for his age, perhaps because of his difficult life experience. He could have gone on to higher education but he chose to get a job to support his family financially.
Back in Afghanistan, father Wahid was a doctor and mother Mahboobe an English teacher. Now Wahid works in a restaurant and Mahboobe has a job in an office. Yema’s older brother Ramiz, 19, also works in the restaurant while two little brothers, Benyamin, 9, and Melid, 7, are going to school. There are no girls in the family.
UNHCR’s partner, the Charity Centre for Refugees (CCR), helped Yema to get access to vocational training as a hairdresser and the state National Employment agency gave him a grant to study for six months. Then the Covid pandemic struck and hair salons were temporarily closed. Now Yema is working full-time, for a regular salary, at the Gold Master salon, a men’s barber shop owned by a Lebanese entrepreneur.
“The owner has been kind to me,” says Yema. “I work with five other people in the shop. I can do everything now, cut and shave. The fashion is to shave the sides of the head and leave a quiff on top. The clients are mostly Moldovans. I like the job and I make them feel good.”
“Yema is a willing worker and fast learner and we are very glad to have him on the team,” says salon owner Hasani Abou nar.
Yema also has a social life, with Moldovan friends he knew at school.
Perhaps there was a time when Yema dreamt of a different future. “I might have liked to do something connected with medicine,” he says. “Perhaps I may still study to do massage or physiotherapy or something like that. But for now, the important thing is to earn a living to help my family.”
Yema remembers Herat — the beauty of the old city, the mountains, the winding streets, the bazaars. He and the family worry about relatives – grandparents, aunts and cousins – left behind there.
“We talk,” he says, “now and then, when there is an internet connection.”
“Moldova is good but Afghanistan is home,” says Yema. But he knows the situation in his homeland may get worse before it gets better and it could be years before there is the kind of stability that would allow him to return, even for a visit.